It shouldn’t have surprised us that we editors at TLR have, uh, diverse views on diversity. We all want it, but the reams of email conversation that were sparked by one off-hand comment a few weeks ago showed us that maybe we want it in different fashions, and for different reasons.
So we thought it would be a good exercise if each of us put our thoughts into a paragraph that might turn into a blog. And then we realized we needed to expand those paragraphs into separate blogs. Which led to us asking some of our contributors about what diversity in lit means to them—and in the end we received an absolute treasure of answers.
Each day this week we will post a blog from a Tahoma Literary Review contributor or editor. We’ll present perspectives you might never have considered. And as we hope the series will lead to a lively discussion, comments will remain open this week. Here’s who’s blogging:
Monday: Leland Cheuk
Tuesday: TK Dalton
Wednesday: Shaindel Beers
Thursday: Kelly Davio
Friday: Yi Shun Lai
Saturday: Stefen Styrsky
Sunday: Joe Ponepinto
Please bookmark our blog page and check in each day. We can’t wait to hear what you think about diversity in writing and reading.
Don’t forget to join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, too.
Eliminating the Default Literary Setting: White, Male
By Leland Cheuk
It’s hard to discuss the thorny issue of diversity in literature without making it sound like authors of color are angry that publishing’s powers-at-be (undeniably mostly white) are not doing their part to essentially practice affirmative action as taste purveyors of literature. Opining that there needs to be more diverse books and stories is like opining that everyone who’s not rich needs more money. No one disagrees.
The more interesting question is how the world of publishing can become more diverse. What do we really want editors, agents, and writers to do? Launch IndieGogo campaigns? Force publishing companies to hire more people of color? Read one female writer per week? Make writers check a box for racial background so that editors can ensure the ethnic makeup of their lists resemble the cover of a college brochure?
One way we can get closer to our ideal state of diversity in literature is to hold ourselves accountable. As both an author and book reviewer, I consider myself, in a small way, a taste purveyor in the massive galaxy of literature, and accounting for diversity has changed my tastes over the past ten to fifteen years.
When I first started writing, I ate up contemporary American literary fiction—a paleo diet of white, male authors. Give me your Franzens, your Lethems, your Chabons, and your Philip Roths. I loved their books. I still consider their work influential in my own.
But in recent years, I’ve begun to realize that they don’t have to do the work that I have to do as a writer.
Because I write about American characters who happen to be Asian, the first thing I must do is to illustrate a level of cultural specificity that leaves no doubt in a reader’s mind that the character is authentically of whatever Asian descent I choose for my character. To do so, I have to posit my character vis-à-vis other races. The same applies to class. To make clear that a character is of a certain socioeconomic strata, one must buffer the character’s existence in relation to those of other socioeconomic strata. What I see in many acclaimed books these days by white, privileged authors writing about white, privileged characters is that no such buffering is necessary. If your default literary setting is white American male, your characters have the privilege of just being. Take James Salter’s recent novel All That Is, a book The New York Times called “a crowning achievement,” with a protagonist that possesses “grace.” After fighting in the navy in World War II, Salter’s protagonist becomes (ironically) a successful book editor in New York City, and traverses decades in one of the most diverse cities in America without meeting a single, significant person of color or a female that he doesn’t have an affair with. James Salter apparently participated in this survey.
Now that America’s minorities are becoming the majority, why shouldn’t the white American male author have to do what I, as an American Chinese writer, must do in a first draft?
As a book reviewer, I read many books that are simply too white. Often those same books involve the economically privileged. And often, in those books, the author seems ignorant of that lack of diversity hard-coded in their prose. If an author hasn’t done the work to delineate his character clearly vis-à-vis race, class, and gender in contemporary American society, the author hasn’t written the proverbial great American novel or “a crowning achievement.” He’s written a lesser work. If I were reviewing All That Is, I would say that as an author, Salter failed to fully employ his authority and observational skill. This reviewer, also intolerant of Salter’s use of the default literary setting, was quite a bit harsher.
What if every editor, agent, and writer held work accountable for diversity in this way? Wouldn’t we end up with books with more diverse universes? Wouldn’t the national awards lists at the end of the year look less like a celebration of six white guys, three white ladies, and a token author of color? Wouldn’t we, over time, have eliminated the default literary setting?
Leland Cheuk’s work appeared in TLR’s first issue. He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has been a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Salamander Fiction Prize (judged by Edith Pearlman), and the national Washington Square Review fiction contest (judged by Darin Strauss). He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. He lives in Brooklyn.